Wed 07 Jan 2015

Treasures From The Roussillon


We are uncovering wonderful vinous treasures from the Roussillon.

The present Fine Wine List contains a number of venerable wines, the oldest being a 1948 Rivesaltes from Domaine de Rancy. These are all remarkable wines, matched by a history that is no less remarkable.

Rivesaltes The Wine SocietyThe Roussillon is French Catalonia. The Catalan flag flies alongside the tricolour and Catalan is widely spoken. It is border country with castles dominating much of the landscape.

Up until the arrival of the railway, this was an almost forgotten backdrop. The railway made transporting freight to the French capital suddenly feasible and so the huge agricultural potential of the Roussillon could be untapped.

The Roussillon is the hottest region of France and viticulture had always been important. The wines were more Iberian like than French: strong and often oxidative in character, sometimes sherry like but not at the stage fortified. That came later when entrepreneurs began shipping these sun-drenched wines to a much wider audience.

It was roughly in the middle of the 19th century that the first of a succession of powerful brands were created. Many like Dubonnet and Byrrh were responding to a need from the French government to provide overseas officials and the military with protection from Malaria.

Dubonnet was marketed especially to the French Foreign Legion. The idea was to add quinine to wine along with herbs and spices. The wine base would be fortified and sweet, and modelled on port and Madeira. The town of Thuir became the hub of production and to this day houses a huge cellar with the largest oak vats. Byrrh, Dubonnet and Saint Raphael are all made here.

Roussillon vineyards

Roussillon vineyards, giving a good impression of the area’s striking landscape.

Fortification was not new. In French it is known as mutage and its inventor was Arnaud de Villeneuve in the 13th century. The process, as with port, uses added alcohol to stop fermentation as yeasts are inhibited by high alcohol. In the past alcohol was added after racking and this is known as mutage sur jus. In the other method, known as mutage sur Marc, fortification takes place in presence of grape skins. This method tends to make fuller wines with more depth and weight.

Production peaked during the inter-war period and has since been in decline. The days of empire are long gone and, of course, better ways to combat malaria have been found. The market too has changed with these strong aperitif wines losing out to spirits or table wine.

A lot of grape production has since been switched to making table wine and there are now vines of chardonnay and sauvignon. Luckily wiser heads made sure that the more traditional varieties remained – often to make table wine, under the Côtes du Roussillon label. But the best vineyards have in many cases been preserved to make fortified wine. Rivesaltes is the largest appellation but there is also Maury and Banyuls.

Different styles

Banyuls harbour

Banyuls harbour

Fruitier styles have become more popular. These can be red or white and are given ageing, often in tank away from oxygen. The whites are often made from muscat. The best wines though tend to be red and aged like vintage port. These wines often have a vintage on the label and can be known as Rimage.

Other styles are more traditional and the wines are extensively aged, sometimes in barrel, but sometimes too in glass demijohns. The very best are sometimes aged for part of time out in the open and produce wines of great intensity. These are sometimes known as Rancio. Terms like Ambré and Tuilé can also be used, referring to colour.

Grape varieties
Grenache is the workhorse and comes in three colours: red, white and grey (gris). All three can be used in red wines and are then fermented together. Grenache gris always produces long-lived wines and so is an essential ingredient.
Carignan is often used in red wines, typically to 10% of the blend. It adds fragrance and structure.
Macabeu is another Catalan variety and is used for whites, sometimes on its own or with a little grenache blanc or gris.
Muscat, fragrant and grapy, tends to be used on its own in wines like Muscat de Rivesaltes.

Three great appellations
Rivesaltes covers the largest area, extending into Fitou.
Maury covers a tiny area in the valley of the river Agly. Vines tend to be planted on black schists and the wines are typically full-bodied and sweet.
Banyuls, right by the sea and just short of the Spanish border produces a wine that has more complexity and finesse.

These wines are collectively known as vins doux naturels meaning naturally sweet and are of course great food wines.

The reds go really well with chocolate all chocolate-based desserts but are brilliant too with cheese, especially blue cheese. The whites make also good cheese wines and desserts. Old wines are probably best served as an after-dinner treat.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer


  1. Peter Sheehan says:

    Enjoyed the article and am hoping Marcel might manage a visit in that region to a most interesting Irish wine maker called Pat Neville owner of Domaine Aonghusa in Corbieres in the village of Fontjoncouse. Not only to meet an interesting character with a good judge of wine making but a passion for what he does in difficult conditions with very old vines.

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